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Sunday, November 16, 2008

if only

I'm reading yet another Jean-Michel Basquiat catalogue, as I usually am, a little bit each day. The one I'm working on right now is a stand-out volume that everyone who cares about Basquiat or the early 1980's must have. It's Jean-Michel Basquiat 1981: The Studio of the Street, edited by Jeffrey Deitch, Franklin Sirmans, and Nicola Vassell. What makes it special is that has substantial interviews from 2006 with Basquiat's old running mates: Glenn O'Brien, Fab 5 Freddy, and so on, even Suzanne Mallouk. Their recollections, particularly about the importance of music to JMB, are full of insights not found in other sources.

Just now I came across a tantalizing tidbit that I have to share. It's from Deitch's interview with Arto Lindsay.
Lindsay: There's another story which is pretty wild: You know the painting Famous Negro Athletes? He [JMB] tried to form a band, Famous Negro Athletes, which was going to be him, David Byrne and myself.

Deitch: Amazing!

Lindsay: We actually had a rehearsal, but it was just too cocaine-addled to get anywhere. I mean, we had the one rehearsal and all got so messed up that it was really difficult to communicate once we actually tried to play. That would have been a wild band...

Deitch: Great name for a band.

Lindsay: Yeah, great name for a band, and to not have all black guys in it was pretty brilliant.

Deitch: So that's something fresh. I never heard that before.

Lindsay: Well, I don't think anybody would remember that except for David, myself, and the person that lent Jean-Michel the loft where we rehearsed, or at least tried to rehearse.
I almost wish I had not read that. My two favourite cultural figures tried to form a band and no one recorded it?! I don't care how coked up they were; I want to hear that!

Here is a strange coincidence: I also read today for the first time of the Beatles' unreleased experiment of 1967, 'Carnival of Light', in the Guardian/Observer. At least that survives. We may actually get to hear it one day.

I'm assuming that the lost Byrne-Basquiat session occurred c. 1980-1981, the period of Remain in Light and Eno & Byrne. Basquiat pretty much stopped making music after that and concentrated on painting. But what if things had gone differently? What if they had tried again? What if Basquiat had survived the 80's and taken up music again and done an album with Byrne at some later date? True, it would not have been part of that brilliant, irreplaceable moment at the start of the 80's, but it would still have been something special.

That's the stupid, useless thing about dying young: the work that never gets made. What would Basquiat have painted, Keats have written, MLK and RFK have achieved? All we can do is be glad we're still here, redouble our efforts to do something ourselves, and, about the things that never were, ask, heart-breakingly, what if?

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

the blogger formerly known as Hussein

Back in February, I was so disgusted by the insulting way that Republicans abused Barack Obama's middle name Hussein that I announced here and elsewhere that I would change my name to Jeff Hussein Strabone for the duration of the campaign, and I invited others to do the same. While I was certainly not the only person with the idea, my manifesto caught on and was picked up by news sources around the world. Whether my words made any difference is doubtful, but it was certainly fun while it lasted.

Barack Hussein Obama is now the president-elect of the United States. For the first time, I feel like the next president is going to be my president, someone who shares my values of intellectualism, civility, thoughtfulness, worldliness, competence, dialogue, and decency. Jimmy Carter embodied many of these values, but he was not, back then, the worldliest of men, and anyway I was far too young to feel much about him one way or the other. My one recollection of the 1976 campaign was that I favoured Carter because I associated him with the television programme Welcome Back, Kotter.

I have enormous confidence that Obama has the ability to be a great president. But I am skeptical that our adulation will help him live up to his potential. In fact, I am certain of the opposite: if we fawn over this man, he will, like all men (and women, too), take our love for granted. With that timeless truth of romance and politics firmly in mind, I hereby announce that I will no longer call myself Hussein.

Think about it: in just over two months, Obama will be the most powerful man in the world. Is it ever responsible to identify too closely with the powerful? I'm with Chuck D, circa 1989, on this one: we've got to fight the powers that be, and Obama is about to assume those very same powers.

Don't get me wrong. I expect to go on supporting Obama's overall vision because it is similar to my own. But if we want Obama to be as great a president as we think he can be, then it's time to become his critics. No president ever suffered for hearing the constructive criticism of those who elected him. With innumerable forces trying to pull him in the other direction, the best thing we can do for Obama is to criticize him—from the left—when he lets us down. And he will.

When the ignorant called critics of the war unpatriotic, our response was uniform: dissent can be the highest form of patriotism. My fellow Americans, I call on each and every one of you to accept your patriotic duty and join me in standing ready to criticize the most powerful man in the world, our next president, Barack Obama.